Tuesday, June 26, 2018

How Growing Up Poor Made Me A Minimalist

Call it lack of awareness or naivete, but as a child I had no idea my family was poor. We had food on the table, clothes on our backs and plenty of love to go around so I never felt lacking. It didn't occur to me to question  wearing hand-me-down blouses or homemade dresses that my mother sewed for us. Coming from a large family, I just assumed these to be normal, practical things that most families did.

The fact that I was unaware of our socioeconomic status says more about my upbringing than it says about me. I loved the meals my parents prepared out of leftovers, stretching our Sunday pot roast well into mid-week. I felt lucky to inherit one of my older sisters coveted outfits. And sharing a bed with my younger sibling was much more of a comfort than a burden--save for those times she gouged me with a sharp toenail.

It wasn't until I was much older that I began to understand how challenging it must have been to feed seven children on a rural minister's income. I have faint memories of falling asleep in the back seat of our car when my mom drove thirty miles to pick up my dad from his second-shift job. He worked at a Brunswick factory where he'd sometimes bring home defective bowling pins for us to play with. We loved those wooden pins, painting faces on them and gluing yarn on the top for hair. According to family legend he once brought home bowling shoes for us to wear. I was too young to remember it, but I heard how my older sisters pitched a fit and refused to wear the shoes to school. My dad insisted they were the same as saddle shoes and his ungrateful daughters should be happy to have them. My teen sisters begged to differ and the shoes "went missing" after that.

When drawing the character of Reverend Carter in THIS I KNOW I drew from my own experience of growing up with a man who could squeeze 200 pennies out of a dollar. He accepted gifts of venison from church members and had it ground with pork suet so his kids wouldn't balk at the wild taste. He milked his clergy discount wherever and whenever he could, often embarrassing my mom. And he cut coupons like nobody's business, stuffing his suit pockets, his wallet, and the glove compartment of our Plymouth until the little door wouldn't stay shut.

One of my favorite scenes in THIS I KNOW is when Grace goes grocery shopping with her Daddy:

When our basket is nearly full, Daddy stops in the middle of the aisle and thumbs through his stack of coupons looking for ten cents off Charmin. When he finds it, he pulls three packages off the shelf and dumps them in the cart. He doesn’t squeeze them even a little bit. I glance over the list and draw a line through TP. Daddy never spells it out. Maybe he worries about dropping the list and somebody finding out Pastor Carter wipes his behind just like everybody else. Which is kind of funny since he spends more time in the bathroom than anyone else I know.

You'd think that growing up having less would make me want more as an adult, but the opposite is true. My dad taught me the value of love over needless things. I live in a 400 square foot granny unit. I drive a 16 year-old car. I shop at thrift stores. I recycle or re-purpose whenever possible. I cut my own hair. And I rarely buy anything I don't need. Unless. Unless I have a coupon. Or it's a really, really good deal. In which case I've been known to blow money on restaurants, spas, concerts and bookstores. Yesterday I bought a new story board at Office Max. I'd been using push-pins to tack my scenes onto a wall but they had white boards for half off retail.  I rationalized that the new dry-erase board would make writing the next book easier but the truth is I inherited the thrill of saving a buck from my dad. 

I'm not cheap--I tip well and happily pay for quality products and services. But I still love a good bargain. I subscribe to Bookbub, scour the internet for airfare deals and never pay rack rate for a hotel room. Which is why I want to acknowledge that $26 for a hardcover book is a bit steep for some of our budgets. I'm thrilled to share that my publisher is running a sale on THIS I KNOW for 90% off the cover price. My dad was frugal but he was also generous. If he were alive today I bet he'd buy every one of you a copy.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Faith of Our Fathers

"Faith of our fathers, we will love. Both friend and foe in all our strife." --Frederic William Faber, Catholic Hymn 1849

When I was a little girl I thought my father was infallible. He was, after all, the minister of our church and shepherd to more than one flock of parishioners. He was firm but kind. Strict but never mean. Compassionate but not a pushover. Well, usually not a pushover. 

People often ask me if Rev. Carter in THIS I KNOW is based upon my real-life dad. The answer is complicated. My dad was a rural preacher so of course I had lots of personal experience a lot to draw on when creating the character of Henry Carter. For example, I stole some of my dad's quirky habits like studying in the (only!) bathroom and using toilet paper as a bookmark for his Bible when one of his seven kids knocked on the door. And like Rev. Carter, my dad was eager to hand out religious tracts to anyone within reach of his fully-stocked pocket and use grocery coupons stored in the other one. But that's pretty much where Pastor Edwards leaves off and Rev. Carter begins.

One of my main goals in writing THIS I KNOW was to juxtapose a minister's devotion to his
belief system against a father's love for his child. Would he feel forced to choose one over the other? Or would he expand to encompass a belief that embraces the unknowable? Added to these questions was the increased challenge of a time period when children were expected to be seen but not heard. This concept felt like a perfect storm between righteousness and choosing what is morally right.

One of my favorite passages from THIS I KNOW demonstrates the dichotomy of a "man of God" struggling against his human ego.

Esther inhales sharply, startling Daddy and he drops his Bible. Everyone gasps because it’s a sacrilege to let the Word of God touch the floor, even worse than the American flag. When Daddy leans over to pick up his Bible, ink pens and tracts fall out of his shirt pocket, making even more of a mess. Several of the ladies stoop down to help him, like a flock of teacher’s pets clamoring for an A+. His face reddens from embarrassment or anger, I’m not sure which. Probably both.

My dad passed away 17 years ago at the age of 89. Today would have been his birthday. As Father's Day approaches, I can't help but wonder how he would respond to my book. As a man who had strong opinions about the afterlife I suppose he might take issue with young Grace communicating with her deceased twin. But I expect that as my dad, he'd be darn proud of me for writing a novel that seems to have struck a chord with readers from all walks of life. This, I know.


Have you heard? THIS I KNOW is Delilah Book Club Selection for June from America's most listened-to female radio host! Pop over to her page to read more of Delilah's discussion of why she chose to recommend my book to her 8 million listeners!

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Home is Where Your Tribe Shows Up

Photo Credit: JackWy Photography
In his posthumous novel by the same title Thomas Wolfe famously proclaimed that you can't go home again because things change. People grow older and more cynical, the town itself expands into something other than how you remember it or contracts into itself due to economic shifts, and leavers are shunned as traitors to family and community. Especially if one of those leavers writes a book reflecting the author's nostalgic image of that community.

I'm here to say that not only can you go home again, it will welcome you with open arms, show up at your book events, stand in line for hugs, and delight in reminding you of a thing you did that you'd forgotten or might wish they'd forgotten. But mostly you will laugh, the kind of laugh that starts deep in the belly and hollows out a secret place where tears are stored. Memories collide; the reality of your mortality a mirror staring back at you in all their beautiful faces. 

Last month I traveled to West Michigan for my Midwestern book launch of THIS I KNOW. My biggest fear was not that folks wouldn't buy my book, but that nobody would show up. People are busy with kids and jobs and aging parents. Driving 30-60 minutes to see an author you knew from church or went to school with might not be a priority when there's a wedding to plan, upcoming graduation or work and family obligations. 

But show up they did. I signed books for those I sat next to in kindergarten in the 1960's, smoked my
first joint with in high school, waited tables together while raising our children, hung out at the beach with every summer, sold real estate for during the 80s, and a critique partner who remembered when THIS I KNOW was just a seed of an idea. There were friends, friends of friends, cousins, nieces and nephews, and people who'd merely heard about me through the grapevine--still the most reliable form of communication in the rural Midwest where decent cell and internet service are as scarce as designer handbags. 

Best of all my five siblings sat grinning from the front row at nearly every event, lined up much like when we scrunched together in that old wooden pew every week as our Dad went into overtime on his vigorous Sunday sermons. On one of those nights we enjoyed a slumber party, scattered around my eldest sister's cottage in our jammies, munching snacks and sharing stories from our current lives but mostly stirring up memories form our shared past.

Thank you to every one of you who attended my events, arranged after-parties, put me up in their home, and drove me where I needed to go. A special gratitude to Barnes & Noble MuskegonBook Nook & Java Shop in Montague and The Bookman in Grand Haven for hosting me at your lovely bookstores. After one of my readings an employee handed me a Sharpie and asked me to sign their author wall. I only hesitated for a moment before writing, "You can take the girl out of Michigan, but you can't take Michigan out of the girl." Because Thomas Wolfe is wrong. You can go home again. And as we say here, you might should.


Have you heard? THIS I KNOW is Delilah Book Club Selection from America's most listened-to female radio host! Pop over to her page to read Delilah's review and why she chose to recommend my book to her 8 million listeners!